Could it become a regional flashpoint? asks Asia Sentinel

If it weren’t for many so unnecessary deaths – and the apparent Malaysian need to act tough in advance of its pending national election – the confrontation in Sabah between Malaysian authorities and supporters of the pretender to the Sultanate of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, might have seemed comic.

Jamalul Kiram III

Filipino Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III. Pic: AP.

It was hardly comic this morning when Malaysia fighter jets and ground forces including seven army battalions responded with overwhelming force against the 200-odd men of the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army, routing them from a kampung on the eastern Sabah shore at Lahad Datu.

It is questionable whether the force unleashed by the Royal Malaysian Army was necessary, or whether it was more a message to the Barisan Nasional’s voting public of government decisiveness and military prowess. So far, President Benigno S. Aquino in Manila has been quiescent about the Sulu sultan’s claims. But the sight of warplanes bombing a ragtag bunch of their countrymen is not going to sit well with the Filipino public.

Beyond that, the situation is very much a reminder that what were thought permanent national boundaries established at the end of World War II and the 20 years of decolonization which followed may not be so, and that there remains the risk of a wider confrontation that has troublesome potential for the region.

For instance the tragic events at Lahad Datu coincide with two other issues involving Sabah and its immediate Borneo neighbors, Sarawak and independent Brunei. One is the Chinese claim to waters stretching almost to the northern coast of Borneo and thus to waters within the Exclusive Economic Zones of Malaysia and Brunei.

Malaysia has so far kept a low profile during the confrontations between China and Vietnam and the Philippines. But the Chinese claim to Malaysia-held islands and waters will not go away, however far Malaysia buries its head in the sand. Indeed, there are some in the East Malaysian states who feel that Kuala Lumpur’s low profile on an issue so important to them reflects an attitude that the two states are only important so long as they provide resources and votes for the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest ethnic political party.

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